Birding Bob and the Ethics of Playback

The Ethics of Playback

The New York Times recently ran an opinion documentary centered on the ethics of using playback while birding. It’a fun watch, and does a nice job of laying out the various positions on the complicated practice. The playback protagonist is a guy known as Birding Bob, and I’ve never encountered anyone in the field who is such a playback enthusiast. He seems genuinely motivated by a desire to see birds and show them to others. But he also enrages people.

You can find plenty of opinions about playback and birding on the web: here are David Sibley’s thoughts. There are studies of the impact of playback on birds, some of which are discussed here.

The ultimate playback setup, able to draw in warblers from miles away

What are my views? I’m not a fan of playback for reasons well-explained here. But I’ve done it. The difference between when I’m fine with it and when it bothers me is mainly about motivation and moderation. The best use was when I was taking some non-birders for a walk around the marsh, and was able to get a Least Bittern to call out from the reeds, and a Marsh Wren to pop into view. The crowd was delighted. I also used it in our backyard one afternoon when a Northern Rough-winged Swallow was perched on the electrical wires behind our house. I played its call, and the bird flew in and hovered and circled feet above our picnic table. Such close encounters are magical. 

When playback is deployed to provoke a rare vagrant to pop into view, or really to add any bird to your fill-in-the-blank list, I’m much less enthusiastic. It’s too much like dumping trash behind the Yellowstone lodge and then bragging that you saw a bear for me. Such garbage-induced bear shows used to be hugely popular.

I recently saw a use of playback I hadn’t seen before. Down at the ocean jetty at Playa Vista, a couple of folks with gigantic zoom lenses on their cameras were taking pictures of an Eared Grebe as it swam feet away. They were playing an Eared Grebe call loudly on repeat as they did so (I’m guessing to keep it close). As with the use of playback to find rarities, I wasn’t a fan of this use of playback. Not sure if it was the selfishness or the laziness or the silliness of it. It didn’t make me mad, but I did chuckle.

I have no coherent theory of the ethics of playback, and I’m no absolutist. But if you find yourself turning to playback regularly, it’s worth reconsidering why you’re doing it and how much you’re using it.  


  1. Chris Spurgeon

    I’m of a zillion different minds about this. I’ve used Bob several times while visiting Central Park, and he’s in general a really great guy… enthusiastic, funny, super knowledgeable, and I without question saw more birds than I would have without him. I thought the majority of the time his use of audio was ok, but there were definitely a few times when I thought to myself, “Dude, you’re playing that call way too loud”. But the thing that I’ve found as a once a year or so visitor to Central Park and the east coast, he’s pretty much the only game in town when it comes to bird guides in Central Park. Starr Saphir, who led walks in the park for many years, passed away several years ago, and I don’t know anyone else leading walks during weekdays. If anyone knows, I’d be happy to give them a try!

    • KDL

      All I know about Birding Bob is from the video, and his motivation strikes me as true. He seems to want to bring in whatever is out there, rather than provoke a reported rarity to make an appearance so he can tick the bird and move on. But you’re right – there’s a zillion different takes on playback.

      Maybe someone will leave a recommendation for a Central Park birding guide. I sadly left Brooklyn and our apartment 3 blocks from Prospect Park in one direction, and 6 blocks from Green-wood Cemetery in the other direction, just as I was afflicted with birding. The bounty of warblers that I could have seen….

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